Tennessee bill would cut off police access to military equipment

A bill proposed in Tennessee would prohibit the state and local law enforcement agencies from using military equipment. Is this a good idea?

Jason Wachter/The St. Cloud Times/AP/File
In this April 1, 2014 photo St. Cloud Police use a military grade vehicle during a standoff in St. Cloud, Minn. A debate about the militarization of Minnesota police forces has been renewed in light of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Critics have questioned the need for a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in a city the size of St. Cloud, but authorities think it has already proven its worth.

Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R) of Germantown recently filed legislation to prohibit both state and local agencies from owning, receiving, or using certain military equipment. The bill would force police to sell or dispose of any existing military equipment in the possession of police departments, with the exception of M16 and AR15 rifles, which are used by nearly every police force in the nation.

After the heavy-handed response to protests in Ferguson – where police were seen wearing military fatigues and rode atop military vehicles – a national debate arose in regards to the "militarization" of American police departments, an approach that has been embodied by the growing use of military vehicles and weaponry to enforce civilian laws. The Ferguson Police Department and St. Louis County police have received equipment from the Pentagon through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which allows the transfer of surplus military items to local police departments. Law enforcement agencies in all 50 states have received such transfers, worth about $5.1 billion since 1997.

[Editor's note: Michelle McCaskill, spokesperson for Defense Logistics Agency which manages the 1033 program, writes that "military fatigues are not provided to law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program." She also says that "it's important to note that the vehicles photographed in Ferguson are called BearCats, which are civilian armored vehicles and not obtained through the 1033 program."]

The bill proposed by Sen. Kelsey states: “No law enforcement agency shall own or use a military vehicle, military aircraft, or military weaponry for any law enforcement purposes.” Sen. Kelsey hopes the bill will provide a “clear separation between the military and police.”

“[W]e can support both our police officers and our citizens by ensuring that our police officers are not viewed as the enemy,” he said in an interview with the Johnson City Press.

When police respond to violent protests and other actions by civilians, it is challenging to find the balance between protecting and serving the public and displaying what some consider unnecessary force. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon discussed the decision to equip forces and to call upon the National Guard to assist Ferguson police in maintaining order.

“Last night, Ferguson, Mo., experienced a very difficult and dangerous night as a result of a violent criminal element intent upon terrorizing the community,” Gov. Nixon said in a statement last August. “As long as there are vandals and looters and threats to the people and property of Ferguson, we must take action to protect our citizens.”

But when does a civil servant, armed with military equipment, go beyond simply protecting the public and upholding the law, into a "war zone" mentality?

James Joyner, editor of Outside the Beltway blog, discussed the importance of separating police from military personnel and how society fails to critically analyze the way we approach the role of police.

“Just as the citizenry has gone too far in worshiping those who volunteer for service in our armed forces, we’ve bent over backwards in justifying almost any action taken by police officers. They have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job. They are not, however, soldiers. Our communities are not war zones. We should not tolerate them acting otherwise,” Mr. Joyner wrote in The Christian Science Monitor.

Under the 1033 program, police forces are legally allowed to accept free military equipment, and many do. The program initially began to assist police to fight drug gangs, who had the means to acquire heavy weapons. Later, concerns about terrorist attacks – domestic and foreign – and hostage situations in schools or any public venue, supported the decisions by local police and communities to armor up. Newport, Ohio police say the military vehicles are particularly useful during flooding or heavy snowstorms.

"Last winter was harsh," Newport Police Chief Tom Collins told Cincinnati.com, "and police used the vehicles to get doctors and nurses to their offices, to get medicine for elderly people who could not go outside, and simply for driving in deep snow and thick ice."

Pentagon officials, however, have also expressed frustration when the equipment is used in ways they deem improper, such as in Ferguson.

“These guys are idiots – riding around on the top of armored trucks looking like rednecks on a country drive, pointing their weapons at unarmed Americans,” said one Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his opinion on the matter, reported The Christian Science Monitor. “Don’t tell me that’s militarization – our troops would never do that stuff, even in a war zone,” he says. “And why are they riding around in woodlands camo in a city? That kills me.”

Still, the Pentagon says that many law enforcement agencies have benefited from access to military equipment. Whether or not they use it, is up to them.

“Well, it is up to local law enforcement to determine how and when and where and under what circumstances they want to use excess military equipment,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary.

But, if this bill passes in Tennessee, local law enforcement will no longer be in a position to make that call.

[Editor's note: The original article incorrectly described military vehicles supplied by the 1033 program in Ferguson as "turreted." Michelle McCaskill
media relations chief of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) writes that "all vehicles transferred through the program are demilitarized prior to transfer."

The original story also incorrectly stated that civilian police forces could "purchase" military equipment. It's free, although there may be storage or shipping costs, according to the DLA. Also, the original story understated the value of military equipment transferred to civilian police.]

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